Protecting our Schools

 How do we continue to cope as the number of innocent students and school employees senselessly killed continues to rise?  Around Texas and the nation, students have banded together in protest as school boards and administrators struggle to guide their communities and keep them safe.  Increasingly, we as school lawyers are asked to provide options.

While many schools contract for the services of school resource officers or have established their own police departments, some districts are giving further consideration to the possibility of arming district employees.  A review of your GKA (Legal) policy will tell you that there are exceptions under both the federal Gun-Free School Zone Act and the Texas Penal Code for possession of a firearm as part of an approved program and pursuant to written regulations or authorization, respectively.  Districts may use this existing legal authority to create what are commonly known as “school guardian” programs.  In developing a guardian program, schools have wide latitude to establish the parameters of their program.  This is in contrast to the establishment of a school marshal program, which is spelled out very specifically in the Texas Education Code. In developing a guardian program, schools must carefully consider and be prepared to address both personnel issues as eligibility, screening, training, and disqualification as well as logistical issues like firearm acquisition, maintenance, storage, and ammunition storage in their plans.

School marshal programs are, as noted above, much more explicitly prescribed in law and much more heavily regulated.  Texas Education Code Section 37.0811 allows for the appointment of not more than the greater of one designated school marshal per 200 students in average daily attendance per campus or for each campus, or one marshal per campus where students regularly receive instruction.  The Board of Trustees must make the appointment, and a marshal must have the appropriate licensing and certification by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.

In addition to licensing requirements, school marshals are required to undergo specific training, including a psychological exam and eighty hours of instruction on such topics as prevention of school shootings, the use of deadly force, and handgun proficiency.  In contrast to school guardians, who have no special authority beyond the authority to possess firearms on school property, school marshals may make arrests and exercise the same authority given to peace officers under the Code of Criminal Procedure, subject to limitations established by the school district.

Whether or not to introduce a school guardian or school marshal program will require significant thought, community input, and careful planning in any district.  In one recent school board meeting I attended, the district’s SRO spoke to the issue of arming select staff members and reminded the board that when the police are called about a “guy with a gun in a school,” they aren’t going to stop and ask questions when they encounter the guy with the gun.  They are probably just going to shoot him.  That’s a lot to risk on a teacher’s salary.


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